The present-day cinematic experience of Garm Hava, one of the best-known movies from the early years of the filmmaking phase that was alternately known as parallel cinema and the Indian New Wave, is quite different. When the restored version of MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava opens for a week from November 14 at select shows at PVR Cinemas multiplexes through its independent cinema label Director’s Rare, it will be consumed along with popcorn, fried snacks and cola. Mobile phones might ring during its contemplative moments, text messagess may arrive and be acknowledged, pizza slices delivered to seats.
On the bright side, the movie was first released 40 years ago and already has a certificate from the Central Board of Film Certification from 1973. Hence, it does not invite re-certification and the insertion of the intrusive anti-cigarette smoking advisory. When AK Hangal’s shoe -etailer character lights the first of many cigarettes, the health warning that has become one of the most irritating aspects of movie watching these days will not occupy a corner of the screen and ruin the moment.
Garm Hava is a showcase screening for its director and surviving crew members, the restoration financer (Pune-based businessman RD Deshpanday’s Indikino Edutainment Company) and PVR Cinemas, which set up Director’s Rare to support independent-minded cinema. Although it’s encouraging to see a multiplex chain devote a few shows to this seventies classic, Garm Hava will have to stand firm against the newreleases. By the time word gets around that it is running somewhere in a cinema with enhanced picture and sound quality, it might have to make way for the next week’s films. Still, it's still heartening that Garm Hava has emerged into the darkness in a cinema hall, rather than directly on DVD.
The Indian New Wave, according to conventional classification, ran roughly from the sixties till the late eighties. It includes filmmakers working across languages, styles and concerns ‒ just about anybody swimming against the current, from G Aravindan and Shyam Benegal to Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, were counted. The New Wave was shared with the citizens in whose name it was being financed mainly through Doordarshan. There were a few auditoriums in Delhi and Mumbai that showed such movies, while other titles, many of which were produced or financed by the state-run National Film Development Corporation or private producers, were poorly distributed. Some of the titles disappeared from theatres soon after their arrival. Many of them travelled mainly through film festivals or film clubs. Quite a few of them fetched up only on video tapes.
This face of Indian cinema, as important to its history as its more popular cousin, remained by and large hidden from public view until the NFDC started putting out its productions on DVD through the label Cinemas of India. The NFDC’s list is long but by no means complete. Even if the entire back catalogue is eventually released on DVD, it won’t account for films produced by individuals and companies.
Watching Indian art films on DVD is not very different from watching them on Doordarshan all those years ago. Give or take breaks for commercials and viewing quality, the experience remains a private and domestic one, to be shared with a few family members of friends at best. The near absence of special cinemas dedicated to alternative films means that the scale and aesthetics of Indian art cinema are often lost.
Garm Hava is a fine rediscovery of the storytelling techniques that were fashionable in the seventies ‒ the use of actual locations, dramatic close-ups, naturalistic performances and nuanced characterisation. Written by Sathyu and Shama Zaidi with dialogue by Kaifi Azmi, based on a short story by Ismat Chugtai and shot by Ishan Arya, the movie captures the gradual disintegration of a Muslim family of shoe makers that has chosen to stay back in Agra rather than move to Pakistan after the Partition. Salim Mirza’s brother leaves first, followed later by his son. His daughter pays a terrible price for losing two lovers to Pakistan.
Many Partition films focus on the plight of Punjabi Hindus, but Garm Hava focuses boldly on issues facing the Muslim community ‒ its relationship with the majority faith and the state, the loyalty tests its members frequently undergo, and the constant threat of political and economic disenfranchisement. The glorious past of Muslims in India is evoked in beautifully filmed visits to the Salim Chisti dargah, which also inspires the only song in the movie, a qawwali, and the Taj Mahal monument, against which love is consummated in one of the finest romantic moments in Indian cinema.
The three Rs
Several Indian art films were a joint effort by the best available talent at the time, but they have had to wait for the three Rs to fall into place for a better measure of their stylistic achievements: revivals, retrospectives and restorations. The revival of important phases in a nation’s cinema can lead to a renewed interest in its treasures and curios. Film festivals and film clubs have led the way in organising retrospectives of directors that place an entire body of work before its audience to view, contextualise and critique. Restoration depends on commitment, funds and clear copyright titles. The three Rs can extend the life of a film and re-introduce its merits to newer audiences, but the question of how these films should be disseminated remains to be satisfactorily answered.
In the nea- absence of arthouse theatres dedicated to cinema as an artistic practice rather than a business, New Wave films float around on DVDs or online, glitches and all. Websites such as Indiancine.ma have uploaded films that are out of copyright. This practice certainly ensures access to forgotten films, but it cannot solve the larger gap in exhibition.
The NFDC was supposed to have set up and operated arthouse cinemas around the country. There is a severe need for spaces where films can run without the pressures of box office collections for several weeks instead of one, and perhaps even without censorship constraints. There are scattered efforts, such as Matterden in Mumbai’s Deepak Talkies, but the efforts need to be on a larger scale. If moviegoers have the choice of regularly watching examples of the alternative cinema, it’s possible that they might become more demanding and discerning. It’s a big if, but it’s worth the effort.
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